How far is too far?

If someone is arrested for an imprisonable offence, should police have the authority to decide whether a DNA sample should be taken? Should they be allowed to use reasonable force to obtain it, and what happens to the data?

Dr Nessa Lynch

These are questions Victoria’s Dr Nessa Lynch believes need wider discussion. To contribute to that debate, the School of Law senior lecturer and University of Edinburgh’s Dr Liz Campbell have spent three years analysing and critiquing the state’s power to obtain and retain DNA from those suspected of crime.

It’s been 20 years since New Zealand’s Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Act was enacted, and Nessa says despite extensive, and rather piecemeal, reform the legislation is yet to undergo adequate scrutiny through public consultation or formal review.

She says, although the forensic use of DNA is a valuable crime-fighting tool, public safety must be balanced with privacy rights.

In their book to be released later this year, The Collection and Retention of DNA from Suspects in New Zealand, Nessa and Liz raise several areas of concern to do with New Zealand’s legislation.

Top of the list is reform that has led to the transferral of authority from the courts to the police. “Over the last decade, the power has been with the police, making them both investigator and decision-maker. This leads to concerns about transparency and objectivity,” says Nessa.

Other reforms have led to a longer list of crimes for which police can demand DNA samples, and extending the scope to include minors in some circumstances.

“About 3.5 percent of the population is in the DNA databank, which internationally is quite high.

“What we really wanted to do was explore this under-researched topic, which has implications for all New Zealanders,” says Nessa.

Nessa and Liz’s research was funded by the Law Foundation of New Zealand.